Israeli troops kill boy, 5, in swoop on Hamas leader

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The Independent Online

Israeli troops captured a Hamas leader and shot dead a five-year-old Palestinian boy during search operations yesterday in the West Bank town of Nablus.

Palestinian sources said that the army surrounded a five-storey block of flats and called on all the residents to leave. They then went in and arrested Adnan Asfour, the Islamic militia's top West Bank spokesman. Israel claimed he was also the local Hamas commander.

During the 1990s Mr Asfour, 38, served two years in a Palestinian prison for subversive activities. Palestinians say he is a member of Hamas's political wing, rather than its military, leadership.

Later yesterday a soldier shot dead five-year-old Mohammed al-Araj in the nearby Balata refugee camp. Doctors said he was hit in the chest. Sami Sitan, a neighbour who took him to hospital, told reporters: "He was coming out of the house, holding a sandwich, when he was shot." Israeli military sources said the clash occurred when Palestinian youths pelted soldiers with stones, bottles and bricks. They said troops opened fire in the direction of an attacker who was trying to detonate a bomb. The army said it was investigating how the boy was killed.

Also in Nablus, a 15-year-old youth died yesterday from gunshot wounds suffered last week in Gaza when the army destroyed five houses in the Rafah refugee camp.

Although there have been no suicide bombings in Israel for more than two months, military sources claimed that Palestinians had tried to launch 18 attacks from Nablus since 4 October. Of these, 13 were said to be aimed at targets inside Israel and five in the West Bank.

These latest clashes came at a time when Israeli and Palestinian officials began laying the groundwork for a summit between their respective prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Ahmed Qureia. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, predicted that the meeting, their first since Mr Qureia took office, could be held place as early as this week.

Ehud Olmert, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister, said in Jerusalem that Mr Sharon's new plan - to make progress towards an agreement within months, or take unilateral action to separate Israelis and Palestinians - was "irreversible". He told foreign correspondents that the Israeli pull-back would mean moving "tens of thousands" of the 220,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "I expect it to be very emotional and very confrontational," he said. The settlers have threatened to mobilise thousands of supporters to resist evacuation.

Mr Olmert explained that Israel was giving the international "road-map" peace plan another chance. "We are giving the new Palestinian government a hand to work together to reach an agreement," he said. "But if we see that it doesn't work, we can't wait for another government. We have to change the status quo."